India, the Subcontinent. It is a cliché to call it a country of extremes, but it is accurate. From snow-capped mountains to burning deserts, neon lit skyscrapers to golden temples, space programs to polio, the booming millionaires to the starving masses.
India is a country that evokes many different emotions in many different people. Travellers talk of how crazy, how magical India is. Personally, the overwhelming emotion that India conjured up was anger. Anger at the dirt, the poverty, the homelessness and the sheer abandonment of hundreds of millions of people by a country that is seen, by itself and others, as one of the world’s powerhouse economies.
India, for me began as one of those places, that despite all my travels, I hadn’t yet gotten around to visiting. I had heard from friends and other travellers about of the bright colours, festivals, and the singing and laughter on the streets. Words like ‘crazy’ and ‘magical’ had been flung around like confetti. Amongst all the platitudes were also warnings about the poverty and dirt, but these I took in my stride – after all I have been to poor places before. I’ve seen shanty towns in Africa, beggars in Vietnam, orphans in Romania and ‘sewer children’ in Mongolia, I don’t have a heart of stone, but I can cope with poverty; it’s no longer a shock. Or so I thought.
I am not an expert on India, nor have I travelled extensively around the country, but it doesn’t take long to see that there is a significant part of the population being left behind. Abandoned to destitution while the government chases a dream of space programs, sporting events and top ten economies.
A visit to an Indian train station, a common enough occurrence for most people travelling around India, will reveal a sea of diseased, disabled and destitute people lying almost heaped upon one another, many without the strength to move out of their own waste.
While this is so far anecdotal, here are some basic statistics; India is achieving its goal of being one of the world’s largest economies, currently sitting at 4th place between Japan and Germany (GDP as ranked by both the IMF and the World Bank and adjusted to account for cost of living). On top of that, India currently has the fastest growth in number of millionaires in the world.
Unfortunately for the ordinary Indian, the average citizen languishes down in 139th place for GDP per capita, their $1,031 per person, per year ranks them below the likes of Sudan, Uzbekistan and the Ivory Coast.
At a countrywide average wage of $2.10 per day, the supposed riches of one of the world’s largest economies don’t seem to be trickling down. From a population of 1.1 billion people, close to half a billion of them live on less than a €1 per day, and over 800 million of them live on less than $2 (these figures are adjusted to take into account the price of living in India, in reality these people only receive €0.25 and $0.50 per day respectively).
Further evidence of the quality of life can be seen by wandering the towns and cities. Looking under a road bridge you’ll see dozens of people sleeping rough. After visiting the opulence of the Taj Mahal, take an early morning rickshaw ride around Agra to see the multitudes of people to whom the closest thing to a home is a rickety cot or plastic sheet by the side of the road. Bearing out what can be see on the street, the Human Development Index (HDI) is an indicator of the level of development and quality of life within a country, and again India ranks poorly, sitting beneath Laos in 134th place.
Life expectancy is also poor, clocking in at 62 years old, compared to 82 and 79 in Japan and Germany respectively (remember, Japan and Germany are one place above and below India in terms of economy). Many factors contribute to this, including endemic levels of diseases such as polio and HIV, as well as the paltry $20 per person per year that the government spends on healthcare. Compare to this the average age of the Indian Government. The Indian cabinet manages a respectable average age of 64, two years older then an average Indian can expect to live. Even more remarkable is the 70 plus years age of most of the government’s senior ministers. Not bad when the rest of the country has a 1 in 6 chance of not seeing their 40th birthday.
Not only do government ministers enjoy an extraordinarily long life compared to their subjects, but many also just happen to be members of a burgeoning millionaires club, with 304 out of the 545 member lower house having assets averaging to $1.04 million each.
While there are poverty reduction initiatives ongoing in India, the gap between rich and poor is increasing with ever growing velocity. Not only that, but India’s HDI has actually got worse, dropping 10 ranks over the last 20 years. Other quality of life indicators have also deteriorated; malnutrition has increased, leaving 230 million people undernourished, and India at 94th out of 119 countries on the world hunger index.
The World Bank, citing estimates made by the World Health Organization, states “that about 49 per cent of the world’s underweight children, 34 per cent of the world’s stunted children and 46 per cent of the world’s wasted children, live in India.”
There are two Indias — Ameeron ki Hindustan (India of the rich) whose voices reach everywhere, and the Garibon ka Hindustan (India of the poor) whose voices are seldom heard”
- Rahul Gandhi